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Pakistan needs an education emergency, with 32 percent of children who should be in school remaining out of school. That’s 20 million+ kids across Pakistan. This is the highlight of a recent report, entitled “The missing third: An out of school study of Pakistani 5-16 year olds”, published by Pak Alliance for Maths and Science. The study is built on data from Population Census (2017) and PSLM Survey (2019-20).

In relative terms, Balochistan fares the worst on this count, with 47 percent of school-age children in the province not being formally educated. Sindh follows closely behind with 44 percent of its children not attending school. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province has 32 percent of its kids out of school; the ratio is 24 percent in Punjab and 10 percent in Islamabad. It’s a cross-country challenge to put more kids into schools, after which comes another difficult task to focus on learning outcomes.

In absolute terms, Punjab, due to its sheer size, leads with 7.7 million school-age children not attending schools, followed by Sindh at 6.5 million, KP at 3.8 million, Balochistan at 2 million, and Islamabad at 52,000. Within the 20 million out-of-school children across Pakistan, Punjab has a share of 39 percent, Sindh 33 percent, KP 19 percent, Balochistan 10 percent and Islamabad 0.3 percent.

Those figures are based on Population Census from 2017, and four years later the number of out-of-school children is expected to have deteriorated further. Now there is the Covid-19 pandemic with all its extremely negative impact on formal learning. Therefore, it will take some time for an accurate picture to emerge as to how many children are not going to schools post-pandemic.

Beyond the headline number, the study provides several useful insights for relevant stakeholders. For instance, there are intense regional and gender divides at work. About three quarters of out-of-school children are based in rural areas, as per the report. Similarly, more girls (11 million) are out of school than boys (9 million). Enrolling rural girls should, therefore, be amongst the top provincial government priorities, and the electorate, it is hoped, will demand accountability on this front come next elections.

The study also suggests that parents (in general) are enrolling their children into schools much later than the generally-followed 5-year-age threshold. This reduces a child’s schooling years and affects their social mobility prospects. This situation requires state-backed interventions where benefits of early childhood education on children’s development are clearly communicated to parents.

Then, school enrollment seems to peak for children around 9 to 11 years of age, after which drop-out rates increase. The report notes that it could be due to access-related factors (e.g. low number of middle and high schools) or growing opportunity cost (e.g. incidence where households would rather have children assist at home or work). This calls for programs that offer targeted incentives to parents to keep their teenage children in school.

Expensive cost of education is cited as the foremost inhibiting factor among children who have never attended school. Considering that households of most out-of-school children live in economically-struggling regions and do not have enough incomes to pay for schools, the report does not seem to place much faith in the argument that for-profit private-sector education model can help put more kids into schools. The government is the only hope for disadvantaged children. But can it deliver?

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